Corrupt and Control: How Syrian Regime Uses Aid to Entrench Repression
Latest SACD report based on testimonies of 45 staff members of Syrian, international and UN aid organisations operating in Assad-held Syria
“I worked for 4 consecutive years focusing on studying the necessities (of beneficiaries) and the level of intervention required by the organisation. Our work was mainly within Damascus and Damascus Reef (rural area), specifically with displaced people coming from areas where the conflict has intensified and caused big waves of displacement such as eastern and western Ghouta and some neighbourhoods of Damascus City. Interference in my work was done by employees assigned by security agencies with the task of reporting on the organisation’s plans, beneficiaries and project budgets, as well as reporting to specific bodies within the regime. We were all working under pressure for fear of being called for interrogation if we showed any objection to the interference or condemned the management or the way grants are assigned. This issue happens in all of the organisation’s branches in regime-controlled areas.”
These words of a Syrian working as a project manager in an international aid agency operating in Assad-held parts of Syria capture in the most powerful of ways the degree of control exercised by the Syrian regime over the aid sector.
Regime interference ranges from directly influencing the aid distribution, deciding who will (and who will not) be the beneficiaries of various projects; to appointing people close to the regime to crucial positions of influence in these organisations to control and monitor their work; to directly appropriating aid to the regime’s military and militias, sometimes in larger percentages than what reaches the intended beneficiaries. The acceptance of such interference permeates all aid organisations, international and Syrian; there is now a dangerous symbiosis between these organisations and the regime’s institutions. Finally, there is ample evidence that the Syrian regime is itself involved in creating many CSOs that later appear in political negotiations as representatives of “independent” civil society.
SACD’s latest report examines the mechanics of the methods the Syrian regime uses to control and direct the work of humanitarian aid agencies, including the UN and other international aid organisations, as well as myriad Syrian organisations that are often directly established by the regime’s institutions or proxies. It is based on interviews with 45 employees of 29 organisations operating in Assad-held Syria. Mostly Syrians and several internationals, these individuals work in international aid organisations, UN agencies, and Syrian humanitarian and civil society organisations (CSOs). In most cases, their motive for participating in the study was to change the status quo in which the Syrian regime either directly or indirectly, but always decisively, interferes in the work of these organisations, making them yet another weapon in its arsenal directed against the Syrian people.
The participant testimonies assert that the interference in the work of both managers and employees is done through internal and external “agents”, implanted in the organisations themselves or monitoring their work from outside. These agents are mainly influential figures with connections inside the regime, or regime agencies directly. Testimonies of many interviewed for this report reinforce the perception regarding the Syrian Red Crescent’s role in interfering in the work of organisations and being directly managed by the regime.
A staggering 95 per cent of participants accept regime interference due to fears of losing their jobs, which further confirms the regime’s tight control of (and influence over) these organisations. Around 38 per cent are afraid of detentions or harassment, while 19 per cent fear direct threats against them—a further reminder of the security policies in regime-controlled areas and the absence of a safe environment.
Regime decides who gets the aid
Throughout the 10 years of conflict in Syria, there has been constant discussion and doubts regarding whether the international aid sent to regime areas was being delivered to the right beneficiaries. Some testimonies and evidence have suggested that some UN aid to Syrians in regime-controlled areas ended up with the regime’s military forces or allied militias.
The overwhelming impression obtained from the survey and the conversations with participants is that the relationship between the Syrian regime and humanitarian organisations and agencies goes beyond regime interference. There instead appears to be a somewhat symbiotic relationship in which the regime, through different bodies and figures, controls the decision-making process and defines the “red lines” for these organisations, and has considerable influence over determining the beneficiaries.
“We cannot say that UN organisations are completely corrupt because there are a good percentage of employees that has good credibility and transparency, but UN organisations operating in regime-controlled areas are forced to give concessions to secure the continuity of such operations, and this is done by giving away aid.” says Fatema, who works for a UN agency. “In the areas where we operate which are under the control of the Syrian regime, I can say that corruption pervades throughout the organisations because of favouritism, bribes and the direct interference of officials. Everyone is keen on benefiting from the funds and decides the beneficiaries according to their political and religious background,” added Meera who also worked for a UN agency.
Approximately 47 per cent of respondents confirmed that they knew of cases where humanitarian aid was diverted to military forces. This is quite a high percentage since few individuals are privy to such information; the true percentage of humanitarian aid being diverted to the military and militias is therefore likely to be much higher.
“The Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the ‘Al-Bustan’ organisation are the two parties that provide the most support to the military forces. Most of the aid goes to the families of the military personnel and National Defence in an open manner.” says Layla, a manager in a Syrian NGO. “There is a large number of organisations that provide part of the funding for their projects to military forces and militias with the objective of protecting their operations and continuity in the areas where they carry out projects. There are organisations that exist mainly to provide aid to the military, such as ‘Al-Bustan’, ‘Al-Areen’, and ‘Al-Amanah’,” adds Tarek, also a manager for a local organisation.
Diverting aid to the military in regime-controlled areas has become a systematic practice due to the regime’s security policies and its high level of interference with and penetration of humanitarian and aid organisations. More than half (57 per cent) of respondents indicated that up to 25 per cent of the total aid offered by their organisation is diverted to the military forces and their families, as well allied militias; 28 per cent confirmed that 26–50 per cent of their organisation’s aid ends up with the military.
Approximately 62 per cent of respondents believe the military and security authorities have a high or very high level of interference in the work of humanitarian and aid organisations in Syria, while only 3 per cent believe there is no military interference.
“Lists with the names and numbers of beneficiary families are prepared; they are normally from destroyed areas in Damascus Reef (rural area). When the funds to the organisation are secured, the vast majority of the aid was given to families of members of the military forces and allied militias. Other organisations do the same just to guarantee their security and continuity,” says Samer. Kaseem, a manager for an international organisation operating in regime-controlled areas confirms: “Organisations operating in Syria dedicate a fixed monthly amount of aid and cash from the funds received for aid purposes to pay to the military authorities and checkpoints in the areas where these organisations operate.”
Corrupt and control
The study participants highlighted the following as the main types of corrupt practices undertaken by all types of humanitarian and aid organisations
- Employment policies (69 per cent)
- Discriminatory selection of beneficiaries (49 per cent)
- Project selection to benefit figures in charge (42 per cent)
- Fake projects to cover embezzlement (22 per cent)
These figures again confirm a very systematic approach by the regime to exercise full control over these organisations. It plays a decisive role in appointing managers and workers, determines who benefits from the projects and even which projects are implemented, and engages in a wide range of illegal activities in the process. It is a closed cycle with a very sinister outcome.
Although most of the participants believe that the UN and international aid organisations may be less corrupt than local NGOs, still approximately 58 per cent of survey participants believe corruption levels within UN humanitarian and aid organisations in regime-controlled areas are medium to very high, compared to 42 per cent that report they are low or very low.
“Most of the corruption in UN organisations is imposed upon them since they will not be able to operate in regime-controlled areas without giving concessions under pressure from government agencies and security branches,” says Samer, a manager in a humanitarian organisation. “UN organisations in Syria suffer from a high level of corruption due to the lack of accountability and the partnerships with local organisations that are corrupt, in addition to the issue of bids and outsourcing that involves high commissions being paid in order to secure a deal,” adds Sandy who works for a UN agency. “Favouritism and connections play a major role in the work. The heads of departments and offices get paid very high salaries and bribes for getting things moving. The parties that these organisations want to help get quick contracts, while those they don’t intend to help have to wait for a year and then don’t get it,” says Anas who works for a UN agency.
According to the testimonies and direct conversations with participants, local humanitarian and aid organisations have much higher levels of corruption. Some 52 per cent of respondents believe the levels of corruption in local organisations is either high or very high.
To a large extent this variation of percentage reflects a quintessential difference between international and local humanitarian and aid organisations in regime-controlled areas: international ones are mostly forced to accept certain levels of corruption in order to survive and avoid persecution by the regime, while most of the local organisations are founded by individuals close to the regime as a tool to obtain funds through their partnership with the international organisations.
According to participants, the most common practice to ensure that regime-linked figures are in charge of humanitarian and aid organisations is to employ relatives of officials or people close to the regime.
“Organisations currently operating in regime areas, especially in Damascus, are licensed by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour and are considered part of campaigns to “whiten” the image of the regime and are governed by nepotism, bribery and suspicious relations. Their goal is to get the largest amount of funding, regardless of whether it is spent in the right place or not. It is considered one of the most corrupt agencies in the field of humanitarian work,” says Meera who works at a UN agency. “Corruption appears in local organisations to a large extent in two basic areas, the first is the selection of beneficiaries, and the second is the selection of employees. If the organisation does not support the regime (in direct way), it may be forced to accept the employees and beneficiaries chosen by the security agencies or government, and it cannot refuse in order to preserve its existence,” adds Sawsan, an INGO employee.
“I was a volunteer who participated in one of the projects 2 years ago and was given a certain amount of money for my fees in the project. After a while I found out that they in the organisation had sent invoices and receipts for an amount of five times the amount I received, and they signed on my behalf and the donors communicated with me directly and asked me about a lot of the financial matters that later turned out to be manipulated. Of course, the funding and support process has been stopped and the project has been suspended, but the organisation is still fully engaged in its work and has found other supportive bodies; the corruption continues based on information obtained from the employees there. In addition, most of the employees in administrative jobs are the children of officers and officials, and the director of the organisation is the son of Damascus, but he is unable to take any decision independently of his lower-ranking employees; this is one of the obvious aspects of corruption in the organisation,” describes the situation Razan, an employee of a local NGO.
Favouritism in hiring policies became even clearer when participants were asked whether the employment of officials’ relatives in these organisations took into account the job candidates’ merits and competence. A staggering 93 per cent think that the employment of officials’ relatives and connected people is not done based on competence, and an identical percentage reported that contracted employees are not suitable for their positions.
Approximately 87 per cent of respondents said that regime-linked workers and managers monitor and report to the regime and the parties that arranged their employment about the activities of the organisations and their workers. This employment policy has enabled the regime to control different types of CSOs, and even the Syrian Red Crescent (SARC). Over two-thirds of managers interviewed for this study asserted that the SARC is fully controlled by the regime, and that it suffers from high levels of corruption and politicisation of its services in a way that supports the regime and its militias; 13 per cent declined to comment on the issue, and the remaining 18 per cent expressed their satisfaction with the role the SARC has played since 2011.
The SARC plays a pivotal role as an extension of the regime apparatus, and exercises a great deal of influence over other local, international and UN organisations. UN and international organisations cannot operate in Syria unless they partner with a local organisation, such as an NGO that has been approved and accredited by the regime, the SARC, or a specific ministry depending on the type of programs it intends to deliver in Syria.
Regime memos published in August 2019 by the Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre demonstrate how “intelligence agencies were giving explicit orders for their branches to work in close coordination with SARC to ‘regulate the distribution of medical aid to these areas [under opposition control] and select the types of aid that will be allowed’. Other documents reference UN complaints, alluding to instances in which security agents interrogated and detained aid recipients directly from aid distribution centers”.
Documents and receipts of aid and medical materials distributed presented by an ex-employee of the SARC to Human Rights Watch (HRW) show that the security branches must approve all deliveries of aid materials. Employees of local humanitarian organisations confirmed that the security forces check all materials delivered and escort the aid convoys. The security forces exploit this leverage to confiscate a portion of the aid for personal profit, or block the delivery of essential medical aid for political reasons. A HRW report  details these trends:
A former SARC employee told Human Rights Watch that over the course of the four years he spent with the organisation, he witnessed several incidents where high-level intelligence officers collaborated with SARC employees to steal and resell humanitarian supplies. He shared pictures of the supplies he said were stolen, and broken seals on shipments which he said had been breached by the intelligence branches. Another human rights activist shared images of aid supplies stored in what he claimed to be an Air Force Intelligence branch.
The SARC and some local organisations serve as a bridge between the security branches and foreign entities (i.e. UN or international parties) so the security personnel do not have to deal with them directly.
The HRW report states that all the international organisations it contacted expressed their concerns regarding the restrictions imposed on them by local partners, in addition to the constant interference of the security forces in deciding the lists of distribution and beneficiaries, which hinders their capacity to execute their programs. The fact that the SARC is being imposed as a main local partner makes it even harder to validate the actual distribution of aid, and curtails their operations more severely.
“The Red Crescent is good for the medical department. It devoted itself to work and reached areas that are very difficult to reach, even for the military authorities. At many stages, it was the only authority trusted by the people. But about the relief department, it cannot be denied that there have been historical thefts, embezzlement and exploitation of the beneficiaries, which reached the point of sexual exploitation, and unfortunately there is no accountability,” says Sande, a manager in an NGO that works with SARC. “In the Crescent, theft occurs openly and without fear of accountability because of the relationships with the security branches in the country. For the medical sector, corruption is low because the Crescent does not receive much medical equipment or medicine, but with regard to relief, the theft is clear in addition to the scandals of exploitation and extortion that occur in the Crescent’s branches; the Damascus countryside is especially afflicted,” adds Basma, an employee of another Syrian NGO.
Donors to deliver proper oversight?
The study confirms some significant realities which international donors in Syria are grappling with, mostly far from the eye of public or the beneficiaries of their intended aid effort. In summary, it is clear that international and UN agencies have a crucial role to play in Syria in association with local humanitarian and aid organisations, but that the regime has a tight grip on their access and operations. The vast majority of international organisations strive to play a positive role in regime-controlled areas, but are subject to extortion and are forced to accept certain levels of corruption and favouritism in order to continue operating.
The study confirms that local organisations exhibit a much higher level of corruption than international and UN organisations and that the Syrian regime uses them as intermediaries to access funds and control project delivery and beneficiaries. Employment is the key practice through which control is exercised: by appointing managers and workers, the regime can monitor and control the organisations’ operations and spy on their employees.
Humanitarian and aid organisations are under regime control from their inception: the entire cycle is fully controlled and monitored. Most often, beneficiaries of the aid and projects delivered by these organisations are determined in a discriminatory way based on political affiliation and sectarian considerations. Worryingly, some of the aid and services delivered by international and UN organisations directly or through their local partners is diverted to the regime’s military branch and sectarian militias.
Finally, the regime views aid organisations operating in regime-controlled areas as instruments with which to advance its policies and practices. A high percentage of CSOs in regime-held areas are used as fronts: theoretically they represent civil society in the political track but in practice they are conveying the regime’s agenda.
So, what can be done. The key word here is oversight. International donors, especially the European Union and the United States, must heavily scrutinise the vetting process for any humanitarian or CSO operating in Syria, including UN and international organisations, but especially local ones. The oversight mechanism designed for this purpose must carry out a transparent and professional audit of the aid organisations they fund to work in areas controlled by the regime, including their hiring practices, as well as policies and practices that may have led to discrimination of beneficiaries and appropriation of aid by the regime.
Transparent reviews must be conducted of links between CSOs they fund and the institutions under regime control, including through individual appointments, use of funds and other relevant practices. Such organisations cannot be regarded as independent in the context of representation in the political process.
Significantly, cross-border aid and all delivery of humanitarian aid in Syria must be depoliticised and de-weaponised. The regime must not be permitted to distribute aid to Idlib given the practices described in this report. There is a legal basis to legally deliver aid across borders without UNSC approval, which relevant states and humanitarian actors can utilise to prevent weaponization of aid by the Syrian regime and Russia.
Finally, an effective oversight mechanism must be instituted to conduct a UN-wide review of practices and policies related to humanitarian aid delivery in Syria with a view to develop corruption-free, legitimate mechanisms for aid distribution before any plans for an organised, safe, voluntary and dignified return are carried out as part of a comprehensive political solution with minimum conditions guaranteed by the international community.
It is well know that international donors have been actively engaged in setting up the such an oversight mechanism on the principled delivery of assistance in Syria. It remains to be seen if it delivers on the promise of ensuring a review and verified system to monitor aid delivery that demonstrates adherence to the Parameters and Principles the UN adopted in 2018. We are also aware that individual donors carry out their own evaluations and audits, which try to ensure that aid reaches those who are in the most dire need.
At the same time, we are also aware that donors are forced to work with the regime’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with SARC, Syria’s Trust for Development and other umbrella organisations under the direct control of the regime. However, the policies and practices described in this report, and the Syrian regime’s weaponisation of aid and capture of civil society, must not be normalised if there is to be hope of any long-term solution and stability. Ultimately, there must be accountability for corruption and using aid funds to finance the Syrian regime’s war economy. This report is designed to contribute to such policy changes.
These findings must inform the policies of the largest donors of humanitarian aid to Syria, primarily the UN and the European Union. There must be an independent, objective audit of how their funds are being used by the UN agencies and international and Syrian organisations working on the ground to prevent aid manipulation and interference by the Syrian regime in furtherance of its repressive, criminal agenda. These findings must inform discussions on how to end Russia’s blackmail in the UNSC regarding cross-border aid and adopt alternative approaches to ensure that aid is deliver legally to the people without UNSC approval or regime interference. A comprehensive review of the policies and practises of UN agencies involved in humanitarian aid distribution in Syria is needed before any plans are developed for the organised, safe, voluntary and dignified return of displaced Syrians following a comprehensive political solution with robust international guarantees. It is necessary to ensure humanitarian operations are conducted in line with the humanitarian principles and work that goes beyond life-saving aid is in line with the 2018 UN Principles and Parameters for UN assistance across Syria. Increased monitoring of implementation is needed and cannot come too soon. This would urgently require an increased focus on the ongoing regional dialogue to ensure donor red-lines and basic operational standards are respected by UN agencies operating inside Syria, especially in regime-controlled areas. Furthermore, in their discussions, the UN Country Team and donors should take seriously evidence and recommendations from external stakeholders, such as the information contained in this report.
 Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, “Inside the Syrian Arab Red Crescent”, 9 August 2019. https://syriaaccountability.org/updates/2019/08/08/inside-the-syrian-arab-red-crescent/
Cover photo: Aid convoy heads to Eastern Ghouta 2018 (BBC)